Wednesday 31 December 2014

Things for which I was grateful in 2014

I kept a gratitude diary at throughout 2014. I wrote down three things for which I was grateful every night just before going to sleep. It had a positive impact on my mood. I went to sleep every night thinking about the good parts of my day. I'm going to keep doing it.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Why I'm quitting refereeing

Refereeing the scrum at Witney vs Amersham & Children, Saturday 17 April 2010.

I started refereeing rugby union in May 2005 when I did the basic foundation course at Oxford University RFC. I thought I could do a better job than many of the society referees who did the midweek college games in Oxford. A current Blue and one of my former teammates in the Oxford University U21s impressed me refereeing one of my college games. Jim Fleming, the former Scottish international referee, also inspired me. I used to read his column in Scottish Rugby Magazine and he refereed a couple of my games in Edinburgh when I was at school.

I've been refereeing for 9 years. I started with only a handful of games in my first season, when I was still more interested in playing. I learned to drive in autumn 2007 so that I could referee better games outside of Oxford and go on exchanges. Since the beginning of 2008, I've been refereeing every Saturday during the season.

During the summer, I stayed fit refereeing touch (aka touch rugby). I got to a high level with that, refereeing at two European Championships and one World Cup. But I gave that up at the end of this summer because I hated all the off-field politics and the people didn't make me happy. I also wasn't selected for this year's European Championships. This shocked me. It was disappointing and embarrassing. I was the top-ranked referee from England in 2012 and the 8th best in Europe. I didn't even make the top 72 this year! I still enjoyed refereeing on the field, but that wasn't enough to make up for all the other stuff I had to tolerate and deal with off it.

When I gave up touch, I also started to think about my future as a rugby union referee. This isn't a sudden decision. I've been thinking about it for a year or two and have discussed it with a handful of people whose opinions I trust and value.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've reached a decision.

This is why I'm quitting refereeing:

Because it doesn't make me happy. Because I don't like many of the people I meet. Because I won't get promoted above my current level. Because I don't want to become an assistant referee. Because I'm more excited by the prospect of spending my Saturdays with people I love. Because I want to go wild swimming and cycling and walking. Because I've refereed for 9 years and have passed the 7-year itch. Because I've given enough back to the game. Because I don't want to read the backlog of admin about regulations and directives and logic trees. Because I'm no longer on the Southern Federation. Because I don't have an official coach and won't get the same level of games. Because I won't get regular assessments. Because I got shunted around between 4 different coaches in 4 years. Because the one guy who stood up for me and got me good exchange fixtures is in Stoke Mandeville hospital rehabbing from a back injury. Because it would feel like a weight off my shoulders. Because the thought of quitting must come from somewhere.

Finding out I'm not getting promoted on to the South-West Group took away a big part of my motivation. I'm disappointed I didn't get Level 5 league games while I was on my best form before Christmas over the past couple of seasons. It has been frustrating to see other referees get promoted ahead of me. I understand that I didn't excel in the 3 Level 5 league games I got towards the end of the season - two of them meaningless: 1 in 2012 and 2 in 2014. I'm also disappointed that the guy in charge of the South-West Group only ever watched me once in person back in 2010.

I'm disappointed with the way I got dropped from the Southern Federation and that I didn't find out about it until late this summer. I feel cut off without an official coach and without anyone to fight my corner and get me good exchange appointments.

I've come to realize over the past couple of seasons that I might not go any higher as a referee. At the last few South-West Group training days, I haven't liked the sound of what Levels 5, 4 and above are like. The extra stresses from coaches, players, spectators and match observers. The different values in the game. The extra travel and mid-week preparation that's required.

The values thing is important to me. Why should I spend my time with people who don't share my values? There's also a hell of a lot of men involved in rugby and few women. No wonder the values get warped! The only women I've encountered over the past couple weeks at rugby have been barmaids, cooks and physios.

Why is it that rugby is one of the few spheres of life where you can still get away with age discrimination? Referees get denied promotion because they are "too old". They were only in their early 40s. This is not tolerated in most other areas of modern society. Why should we tolerate it in rugby - a game run by "old farts" (retired amateurs)?

I want to spend my Saturdays and holidays doing things that make me happy. And rugby doesn't make me happy anymore. It's become more of a habit that I just do because it has become part of my identity. I'm more excited to spend my Saturdays cycling, wild swimming, walking and talking with friends and family. I don't want to continue refereeing in Oxfordshire at a level that doesn't challenge me anymore.

I spoke to someone on the national assistant referee panel and I wasn't excited by the sound of what it's like. The abuse you get from spectators. The people you have to deal with. The favouritism and age discrimination. The extra travel. All that doesn't appeal to me as much as getting my Saturdays back to do what I want to do. I am intrigued to see what it would be like as a regular assistant referee, but speaking to this guy made me realize it's not for me right now.

The most common feedback I got as a referee is that I should smile more, that I don't look like I'm enjoying myself. Maybe they're right. Maybe I should be doing something else with my time that does make me smile. So that's what I'm going to do.

Thursday 9 October 2014

How to fix "GfxUI has stopped working" in Windows Vista

Annoying, isn't it?

Recently when fixing my friend's laptop - a battered old Acer Aspire 5738Z running Windows Vista - I kept seeing the "GfxUI has stopped working" error every time Windows booted up.

I did the usual thing of Googling for a solution, but none of the proposed fixes such as updating the Intel graphics driver or flashing the BIOS worked for me.

What did work for me was the following:
  1. Uninstall all versions of Microsoft .NET.
  2. Restart Windows.
  3. Run Windows Update and reinstall all versions of Microsoft .NET and related patches.
  4. Restart Windows.

This might not work for you, but it did for me.

Incidentally, that laptop is the most fragrant computer I've ever encountered. It smells of wood! (My friend is a carpenter and uses his laptop in his workshop, so it's covered in sawdust.)

How to classify any animal

Many years ago, my sister, Laura Whalen, and I came up with a new, simpler way of classifying animals. None of this kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus or species taxonomy nonsense. No more vertebrate or invertebrate. Screw your mammals, reptiles, crustaceans, insects and so on.

There are only two kinds of animals: weird dogs and weird cats.

Most animals (nearly all of them, in fact) are weird dogs.

The only animals that aren't weird dogs, are dogs. They are weird cats.

To help those of you who may struggle with this new binary classification system, I've designed a simple flow chart.

You're welcome.

How to classify any animal flow chart

What about dinosaurs? Easy. They are weird dogs. This will help to smooth out any arguments between creationists and proponents of Darwin's theory of evolution.

My good friend and former colleague, Joe Wass (for it is he), suggested to me earlier today that I might want to expand my theory to include "horrible cats".
I don't think this is necessary. They are simply weird dogs. You may wish to call them "horrible weird dogs". But they're weird dogs all the same.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Letters from America: USA diary 2014

I spent 9 days on holiday in San Francisco, Berkeley and Lake Tahoe in northern California, USA, visiting friends, eating the American way and watching sports. You can view the best of my photos from the trip in an annotated album on Facebook. You don't have to be logged in to see them.

Thursday 11 September 2014: Travel day
Early start at 03:30 to catch the 05:30 bus to Heathrow. Flight was delayed. Thought I might miss my connecting flight in Charlotte but it was OK in the end. Watched Draft Day and The Lego Movie on the transatlantic flight from Heathrow to Charlotte. Slept quite a bit. Pav was there in San Francisco to meet me. My bag didn't arrive. Probably due to the late arrival in Charlotte. We drove home in a Zipcar. Went out for dinner (burger, chips and Dr Pepper) at Garaje with Jay and Ninian, two of his colleagues. Had a really good sleep. I was exhausted.

Friday 12 September 2014: Day 1
Went for a grilled cheese breakfast with Pav at The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen. Walked to Blue Bottle Coffee for coffee and lemonade. Walked up some of the hills. Saw the street cable cars. Had lunch (chicken caesar salad and a shared cheesecake) at Cafe Divine near Washington Square Park. Walked through China Town. Had soft-serve vanilla ice-cream with gummy bears on top at the Ferry Building. Got an Uber back to Pav's place. Met Lucia, his wife, who was a bit grumpy at first because we kept her waiting. Went for dinner at a Thai restaurant called Basil (chicken satay skewers followed by beef stir-fry with rice).

Went to the LA Dodgers at San Francisco Giants baseball game at AT&T Park. Giants won 9-0. We missed a home run in the bottom of the 7th when we were going for hot cocoa. D'oh! It turned out none of us actually wanted to leave but we all did because we thought the other person wanted to.

Saturday 13 September 2014: Day 2
Walked to Pav's place. Lucia didn't join us for brunch at Stacks in Hayes Valley. Had macadamia nut and coconut pancakes with salted butter, maple syrup, bacon, orange juice and a smoothie. Such pancake. So bacon. Ate too much. Walked to the Caltrain station for the train to Stanford. Watched Army at Stanford. Stanford won 35-0. It was a lovely atmosphere - particularly all the tailgating and families. Lots of thoroughly decent people.

Had dinner at the Palo Alto Creamery Downtown (chicken and cheese enchilada and Dublin Dr Pepper - which is basically Dr Pepper but in a huge bottle - followed by a shared coconut milkshake). Felt bad about my greasy face and bad skin. Ate too much again. Bleugh. But started to feel a bit better after the milkshake, which really wasn't necessary. Walked around Palo Alto again then caught the slow train home. Spent the rest of the evening at the office.

Sunday 14 September 2014: Day 3
Walked to Pav's. Had breakfast at Arlequin. Had granola and juice because I feel bad about my food choices. Felt awkward and was quiet today. Walked around and saw the Painted Ladies (pastel-coloured Victorian houses that survived the fires and earthquakes), the hippy neighbourhood in Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park.

Got a good view from up in the observation tower at the de Young art museum. Got an Uber to the train station. Went to Bears at 49ers alone at the new Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. Long journey via Mountain View (home of Google). Great atmosphere in the first half. Stood in between fans who screamed while the Bears' offense was on the field. Nothing like the weak-ass atmosphere for the International Series games at Wembley. Niners were up 17-0 but lost 28-20 after 4 Kaepernick turnovers and 16 penalties. Even longer journey home.

Feel low in self-esteem but have figured out why: made to feel self-conscious about my bald patch when Pav mentioned it was red from the sun (have been wearing my Lake Erie Crushers baseball cap since); don't like having my picture taken when I feel disgusting from what I've been eating and with greasy, acned skin; I feel like a gooseberry; I feel like I've taken advantage of Pav's friendship for free accommodation; 4 sporting events is probably taking it too far; I don't feel I've got anything interesting to say when I feel like this. Been processing all this today with my time alone.

Monday 15 September 2014: Day 4
Breakfast alone at Café Centro (croissant, tea and a free cookie for checking in on Yelp). Borrowed Pav's fixie bike (really a single-speed) and cycled to and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Really enjoyed the exercise and it made me feel better.

Got the BART to Berkeley to spend a few days with Chad and his wife, Selena. Went for dinner at a Mexican place called La Mission on University Avenue. Chad gave me a tour of the UC Berkeley campus at dusk. I now realize that "Cal" and "Berkeley" are one and the same institution. Selena was home when we arrived. Spent the evening talking.

Tuesday 16 September 2014: Day 5
Got up quite early. Had breakfast in a cafe in Berkeley (savoury brioche bun and orange juice). Hired a car from Avis. Chad refused the SUV we were offered for a smaller Toyota. Chad drove Selena and me to Muir Woods where we walked amongst the giant redwoods and hiked up to the top of the canopy. I left my iPhone in the car accidentally and therefore didn't take any photographs, but I don't mind because I was able to experience it more with my own eyes instead of the viewfinder. Besides, Chad and Selena were taking pictures that I might see someday. Then went for a swim at Muir Beach. My first swim in the Pacific Ocean. Got overwhelmed by a surprisingly big wave that temporarily drowned me. My experience in Rio helped me here: I didn't panic but kept paddling and held my breath until the wave had passed and I could swim and find my feet.

Ended the day with dinner at Napa Valley Burger Co and a Lappert's coconut ice-cream in Sausalito. Pretty tired when we got back. In bed now at 21:22.

Wednesday 17 September 2014: Day 6
Lazy morning lying in bed listening to NFL podcasts. Left the house alone at midday. Walked to Saul's deli for pastrami on rye - recommended by Chad - a New York Jewish classic. Walked up to see the Cal football stadium then on up to the Botanical Garden.

Got dinner on the way home at Cheese Board Pizza, a workers' co-operative that only makes once kind of pizza per day. I got a whole pizza (with two free slices) so that I could share it with Chad and Selena. Met Chad at his house then went to the Coliseum to see the Texas Rangers at the Oakland A's. Oakland pitched 8 scoreless innings and were 1 up before giving up 6 runs in the 9th. We had great seats. Enjoyed the game.

Thursday 18 September 2014: Day 7
Met Megan Furman for breakfast. Had a waffle at the Guerilla Café. Then she gave me a tour of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology where she studies. Tried to help her with her broken laptop. She looked lovely.
Met Pav and Lucia for lunch. Ate at the Crepevine. Drove to Lake Tahoe. There's a forest fire (called the King Fire) 50 miles away. The area is covered in smoke, which may spoil the views tomorrow.

Stocked up on pro-things at a local convenience store, then had chicken wings, a meaty pizza and lemonade for dinner at Basecamp Pizza in Heavenly Village. Annoying loud music from some guy playing guitar along to his backing track. I wish he'd stayed in his bedroom and left us in peace.

Friday 19 September 2014: Day 8
Went to Emerald Bay at the south end of Lake Tahoe. Hiked along to the north-west edge of the bay and back. Had a swim from the beach at Vikingsholm.

Went for late lunch / dinner at the Blue Angel Café. Watched the sunset at Zephyr Cove, where I had another swim and was in the water when the sun went down.

Bought more pro-things from Safeway. Had hot chocolate, Pop Tarts and cookies back at the cabin. Planning to watch the sunrise with Pav tomorrow morning.

Saturday 20 September 2014: Day 9
Woke up at 05:30 to watch the sunrise at Meeks Bay with Pav. It was lovely. Had a swim shortly after the sun was up. Blissful.

Went in the hot tub back at the cabin. Had breakfast in the cabin and packed up.
Went up the gondola at Heavenly Mountain Ski Resort. Nice views and it was interesting to see a ski resort in summer without any snow.

Had lunch at an American diner called Red Hut Cafe. Not the healthiest meal but tasty (rösti made from hashbrowns, bacon and cheese and a bottomless Dr Pepper). The soda containers were huge - just like some of the customers.
Drove back from Lake Tahoe via Berkeley to drop off Chad's keys that I forgot to give him back. Got some cookies and tea at the Teacake Bake Shop (which doesn't actually sell English-style teacakes). Dropped Lucia back at their apartment then Pav took me back to the office. Said goodbye with - I think - 4 hugs.
Did some laundry and packed my bags, ready for an early start and a full day of travel home tomorrow.

Sunday 21 September 2014: Travel day
Left the office at about 08:10 and walked to Montgomery BART station on 2nd and Market. Got the train to the airport. Had my second breakfast (chicken caesar sandwich, fries and juice) in the departure lounge. Left on time. Read The Book Thief and slept on the flight to Philly. Caught the end of the Denver at Seattle game in the departure lounge: Seattle field goal; Denver touchdown drive and 2-point conversion from a drive that started with 0:59 remaining and no timeouts (vintage Peyton Manning); Seattle touchdown drive in overtime to win it. Had dinner (sad fried chicken strips and fries with dip and a lemonade) in an unfriendly Irish bar in the departure called Jack Duggan's Pub and watched the beginning of Sunday Night Football (Pittsburgh at Carolina). Flight to London. Finished The Book Thief (a remnant from my last holiday in Rio: it was recommended by Emma Reading) and watched a bad movie called Neighbors. Had the whole middle row to myself so stretched out and slept.

Monday 22 September 2014: Travel day

Arrived at Heathrow and got an earlier bus home at 10:10. Walked home from Gloucester Green bus station. Unpacked soon after getting home (unusual for me). Backed up my iPhone 4S and updated to iOS 8. Late lunch. Watched Jacksonville at Washington and fell asleep on my bed after 16:00 with my black cat Milly on my chest. Woke around 20:00. Had dinner. Now in bed at 01:30. Back to work tomorrow.

Friday 26 September 2014

My 2013 10Q answers

I've been doing this exercise in personal reflection every September since 2010 (see also my 2011 and 2012 answers).

Day 1:

Describe a significant experience that has happened in the past year. How did it affect you? Are you grateful? Relieved? Resentful? Inspired?

My answer:

I went to Brazil for carnival in Olinda and Recife. I was really looking forward to it. I saw and heard some beautiful things when I was there but I also had depression. I found it stressful being there: lack of Portuguese made it hard to communicate with people; it was 35 degrees every day - a constant struggle to stay cool and hydrated; it's still a third-world country: they don't do pavements and getting into Recife by bus was so slow; I also spoilt it somewhat by developing a crush on the girl I was sharing a room with and then never having the guts to do anything about it until she got tired of me hanging around her.

I'm still glad I went, but my memories are slightly tainted. By the end of my three weeks there I couldn't handle it anymore and stayed inside reading for the last 2-3 days after carnival. It was then that I came to terms with what I'd experienced and realized I had depression.

I did have another spiritual experience, though: hearing what sounded like angels' voices during the Night of the Silent Drums in Olinda.

I wonder how often my bouts of depression are related to girl trouble.

Day 2:

Is there something that you wish you had done differently this past year? Alternatively, is there something you're especially proud of from this past year?

My answer:

I wish I'd made more of an effort to learn Portuguese before going to Brazil. I had some CDs that I listened to in the car on the way to rugby sometimes and I went to Monday conversation meet-ups for a few weeks, but I soon realized that what I was learning was way too formal and only a tiny, tiny bit of vocabulary.

What am I proud of? I quite like where my life is right now. I have lots of stuff to keep me busy and entertained, to keep the black dog away. I open myself up to experiences.

I was quite chuffed to pass my yo-yo fitness test last week. I feel a bit chubby and I've got a weakness for snacks and treats too often but I reached the level that was expected of me - but nothing more.

My mum makes me proud when we discuss what's going on in my life and she expresses admiration for the way I live my life, sucking up culture and experiences.

I'm quite proud of the way I handled buying a new car. I figured out it was time to change after two years in a row of expensive repair bills after servicing. Instead of rushing into it, feeling pressured by Toyota's sales tactics, I took my time, saved up and ended up with a car I love with all the bells and whistles I could have wanted. I used the bank of mum and dad so I didn't even need a loan or a finance deal.

I'm proud of the way I can talk myself out of spending money unnecessarily instead of buying things on impulse. If you don't buy straight away and just leave it for a few days, you realize you didn't really want or need the thing in the first place.

Day 3:

Think about a major milestone that happened with your family this past year. How has this affected you?

My answer:

My parents are turning 60. We organized a get-together for the immediate family and cooked a barbecue. I don't think it has affected me much at all. Boring answer today, I know.

Day 4:

Describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?

My answer:

I don't think events in the world affect me that much.

The civil war in Syria is increasing a demand for Syria-related keywords in Islamic Relief UK's Google Grants account. I don't feel 100% comfortable about exploiting that. That's the side of marketing I'm less keen about.

Day 5:

Have you had any particularly spiritual experiences this past year? How has this experience affected you? "Spiritual" can be broadly defined to include secular spiritual experiences: artistic, cultural, and so forth.

My answer:

I was moved during the Night of the Silent Drums in Olinda, Brazil in the week before carnival in February. I just remember being moved almost to tears by how beautiful the singing was floating above the thunder of the drums. Maracatu has this amazing ability to get you "there". I was also feeling a bit shitty emotionally (girl trouble), so I was probably more vulnerable than usual, more prone to being moved by something like this.

Day 6:

Describe one thing you'd like to achieve by this time next year. Why is this important to you?

My answer:

I want to be promoted to the South-West Division as a referee by Christmas. That's my goal and it has been for the last three years or so. It's important to me because I think I'm ready for the challenge and I want to prove that I'm capable of refereeing at a higher level. I don't want to stagnate and I'm not sure what I'd do with my refereeing if I was turned down yet again.

Day 7:

How would you like to improve yourself and your life next year? Is there a piece of advice or counsel you received in the past year that could guide you?

My answer:

My life is pretty good right now. If I added stuff, I feel like I'd have to take other stuff away, or cut down to make time for it.

I'm thinking about the usual stuff like getting more sleep; improving my diet; hardening up by body to look and feel better about myself; getting a girlfriend (I'm working on it).

I would like to learn a bit more Portuguese before going to Brazil next year, but I'm not prepared to sacrifice any of my time currently spent watching and reading and listening about the NFL.

Trying to remember the best piece of advice I've received. It would probably not be personal to me but something I read in the daily Moodscope emails.

I may come back to this...

Day 8:

Is there something (a person, a cause, an idea) that you want to investigate more fully in 2014?

My answer:

I want to get to know Katie Nicholas a bit better. I like her, but I'm unsure if we're right for each other.

I should probably spend some time getting to know Aiysha from Sol Samba. She said a few weeks ago she wanted to talk to me. Maybe she can see my issues. (She's a psychologist.)

I need to choose a charity to give a regular donation to. I wanted to donate 0.7% or more of my gross personal product to charity: the UN target for GDP that countries are supposed to give in aid.

Day 9:

What is a fear that you have and how has it limited you? How do you plan on letting it go or overcoming it in the coming year?

My answer:

I'm still afraid of rejection, although I'm much better at acting on my feelings towards other people than I have been in the past.

I don't have any big plans, but I'm going to try to be more spontaneous when I'm with other people that I like: to make a move when I have the thought about making a move.

Day 10:

When September 2014 rolls around and you receive your answers to your 10Q questions, how do you think you'll feel? What do you think/hope might be different about your life and where you're at as a result of thinking about and answering these questions?

My answer:

I doubt much will change between now and September 2014. I know who I am and I'm comfortable with it. I accept it. I don't know if any of the things I'm aiming for right now will make me feel any better, any happier. If anything, they will just add to the fullness of my life; make it harder to fit everything in.

I may be slightly embarrassed about what I've written. I may not be surprised that I haven't changed that much; that I still think about the same things.

Day 11:

What are your predictions for 2014?

My answer:

War. Change of personal patterns. Group.


Record your own answers this year at

Saturday 1 March 2014

Brazil diary 2014

I spent two weeks in Rio de Janeiro with Carnaval Transatlântico from 9-23 February 2014 - the build-up to carnival. We are a carnival bloco made up of members of Nova Guarda from Birmingham, Ziriguidum from Bristol and Toque Tambor from Hitchin, led by J P Courtney. We had some amazing experiences together. Here's my diary, which I wrote to help me remember what happened when and with whom. I may return to update this later with (other people's) photos.

Sunday 9 February: Travel day
Flew from Heathrow. Four movies on the plane. Shared a bed with Emma Reading because there was only a double and not two twins.

Monday 10 February: Day 1
Went out for breakfast and a bit of food shopping. Bought a TIM SIM card and set it up. Went out for a walk along Botafogo beach with Emma and Martin. Drink with Sam and others at a bar. Learned about the weird payment system with tally cards. Terrible dinner at Bar do Italiano. Waited for ages to get served - even for a drink. Shared bed with Emma again.

Tuesday 11 February: Day 2
Email from J P checking I was OK. Walking tour of Carioca, Centro and Lapa. Learned that young people in body paint are students who have qualified for university and want beer money. Saw amazing coloured tiled steps. Feijoada lunch in Lapa. Terrible service again. Evening rehearsal with Monobloco in Copacabana. Loved having section leaders. Spent third night sharing a bed with Emma.

Wednesday 12 February: Day 3
Best day in Rio so far. Emma moved out to Beth Chambers's room. Botanical Gardens with Emma and Martin. Hiked up to Christ the Redeemer with Emma. It was the hardest hike I'd ever done. I hit the red zone after 20 minutes due to Emma's fast pace. Took me about 50 minutes to recover but eventually got my second wind. Felt like quitting and turning back but I took my time. We reached the top in 1 hour 40 minutes! It usually takes 2-3 hours! It was so pleasing to have done it and we were rewarded with the most amazing views. Now every time I see Christ the Redeemer I can say I walked up there. Drinks near Botafogo metro after a shower. Feeling a glow of respect from the group. It's nice to feel noticed. First night with the double bed to myself.

Thursday 13 February: Day 4
Lazy morning after late night from the buzz of climbing Christ the Redeemer. Message from Tantse asking what my plans were for the day. She has a boyfriend in the band, I think: Dave Walter. Got surdos ready and walked down to Be Happy Studios for rehearsal. There were no lights or power because a power cable was down. Classic Brazilian incompetence. Waited around for hours and then eventually felt Dunkirk spirit when we walked to a nearby park to rehearse. Funny taxi driver back to Mercure. Liked English rock music, James Bond and Mr Bean. Gig at Circo Voador. Amazing venue. Enjoyed watching people dance. There was one wee bald fat guy who had to work really hard to find a partner and looked sad and lonely until he did, but he was an amazing dancer and the ladies all enjoyed it. First third of set was the best stage gig I've ever done. Fucked up "Steal My Kisses" and we never had the same energy after that. Got taxi home straight after and helped take surdos back to Mercure.

Friday 14 February: Day 5
Late night last night. Got up for breakfast and then went back to bed until 15:20. Went up the Sugar Loaf in cable cars to watch the sunset. Quick shower and then out to watch GRES São Clemente. The others got a bit scared when we went off to find food and drink. It wasn't a great area, but it was fine. Walked past the Sambadromo. Bar was a bit skanky. Rehearsal / show was great, although a bit smaller than I expected. Nice walk and chat with Emma from pub and while waiting for bloco to start. Didn't eat much today but feel fine.

Saturday 15 February: Day 6
Slept late. Had a swim. Did laundry and shopping. Played at Encontro do Blocos. Had a great time and the crowd loved it and were really supportive. Had dinner at Japanese place in Botafogo. Went to Mangueira enseiao. It was mental: a big box of noise, colour and happiness.

Sunday 16 February: Day 7
Went to Vasco da Gama vs Flamengo at the Maracanã stadium. Had some fun on the Metro with Dave Potter on the way there. It was impossible to change lines where we wanted and we couldn't even retrace our steps because the trains weren't going in the right direction; or they did and then went back again! Eventually gave up and got a taxi the rest of the way.

Paid R$120 for my ticket (£30). Vasco scored first then Flamengo equalized with a controversial goal that didn't appear to have crossed the line. The assistant referee behind the goal gave it. TV apparently showed it 30cm over but they weren't showing replays in the stadium. The poor referee had to be escorted off the pitch by riot police at half-time when the Vasco players attacked him.

I saw the most blatant act of cheating by Elano, the first Flamengo goalscorer: the referee had a little spray can to mark the spot for free-kicks and where the wall should stand. For one free-kick, the Vasco goalkeeper went down injured and while the referee turned his back, Elano wiped off the free-kick spot and moved the ball forward 2m! The cheek!

Flamengo then scored the winner in the last minute. The atmosphere was great, even though there were only 13,000-16,000 in the stadium. They gave two figures but I'm not sure why. Both sets of fans mingled quite happily in our section: no need for segregation.

We went on to the Sambadromo. It started to rain. We got soaked but I didn't mind. I was quite comfortable and stepped in time when I got cold. Saw Beija-Flor and Tijuca. Beija-Flor's bateria was better. The singing was amazing and the rows and rows of dancers just kept coming. There were about 250 in each bateria. The whole parade stretched most of the length of the Sambadromo.

Brazil is a crazy country. So much is broken and frustrating but the people are warm and happy and they make beauty and noise and colour.

J P joined in with some candomble players on the way back. I gave one a plaster for his finger which was bleeding from the drum. If I end up with AIDS or hepatitis A or B, that might be why.

Had late dinner at Bar do Italiano in Botafogo. Much better second time round, although they still forgot half my order.

Returned to hotel with Fiona.

The lifts are out of order and there is no wi-fi. Standard.

Monday 17 February: Day 8
Lazy, relaxing day. Slept till midday. Had a long swim in the pool. Had dinner at a kilo restaurant on Rua São Clemente. Watched a gig at a public square in Lapa by Estratégia. They played a lot of funk. It was good and got better when it started to rain. Led a procession to drinks at a bar in Lapa called Antonio's. Early-ish night: it's now 02:36!

Tuesday 18 February: Day 9
Went to Copacabana with Chris Dobbie. It was beautiful to swim in the sea. We meant to go to Ipanema but took a wrong turn coming out of the station. Should have checked the map. I assumed Chris knew where he was going. The waves were huge but we started at a place with no red flags so we could swim. Walked all the way along to the north end of the beach and then back through the tunnel to Botafogo. Burnt the top of my feet because I was wearing flip-flops. Didn't put suncream on my feet when I came out the water because I was covered in sand and we walked through the water. Tough one to prevent. Must have happened on the walk home. Had lunch in my apartment. Snoozed. Then had a swim in the pool with Emma. Dinner at same kilo then watched J P's gig at Carioca da Gema in Lapa. In the band were Paul Baxter, Sam Tomkins, Jackson Lapes, Fabio Allman, Pepe and the cavaquinho player, whose name I don't know. Most of the band were there to support. Good night. It's now 02:36 (again!) but I still need my bedtime shower.

Wednesday 19 February: Day 10
No one wanted to go to Ipanema or cycle round the lagoon with me so I tagged along with Betchy, Carol and Ali in town. Browsed in the music and carnival accessories shops at Carioca. Had lunch at the Confeitura Colombo, a grand colonial tea room. Visited the cathedral (upturned bucket). It was beautiful. Glad I cultivated my spiritual side. The building made me look up all the time. The statues at the side entrances formed silhouettes in the light. Jesus' fingers were rubbed shiny by people touching them, like the lions' noses in Munich. Dinner at Rio Scenarium in Lapa - a wonderful building full of curious collections of old stuff. Then led the group to the Portela rehearsal far out in Madureira. It was worth the mission of a journey. Half inside, half outside venue. The people were so welcoming. Blue and white. Little colonial buildings on one side, like a little village. Stayed on to listen to some samba at a bar outside. I'm happy.

Thursday 20 February: Day 11
Woke by my alarm at 09:00 but slept until 10:15. Went to Barra to play a gig at the British School, where Pepe teaches. I was the bus monkey, making sure everyone was there. Had a nice chat to Kathy on the way there. She's lovely. Didn't enjoy the gig as much as the earlier ones. Playing to school kids, who had a workshop earlier in the day and joined in with us for "Get Lucky". Surdos weren't well tuned. I need to take care of my own tuning in future. Sat by myself on the way home. Chatted to Malcolm behind me for a bit. Rested and had a swim in the pool. Fiona saw the blister on my sunburnt foot and said I had second degree burns and need to take care of it. Then went out to see maracatu at Largo do Machado. The bateria was called Tambores de Olokun. Met a couple of guys in the bar beforehand, next to the shop (Maracatu Brasil) where I bought straps, beater, surdo key and triangle for R$202 (£52). It was good to hear maracatu. It brought back memories of last year. It doesn't fill me with joy like samba does. Got metro home with Emma afterwards. We are planning to go to Ipanema tomorrow at 09:00.

Friday 21 February: Day 12
Met Emma at 09:00 and spent the day at Ipanema beach together, just the two of us. Bliss. Had a lovely time in long conversation. I love talking to her. Had lunch in between two swims (chicken, of course: Emma's favourite). Left at 15:30. Went to Lapa for TV news shoot at the Fundiçao Progresso at 18:20. Dinner in Lapa (below average). Then had gig with Monobloco at the Fundiçao Progesso. Amazing venue but acoustics were a bit too booming. I was right under some speakers on the right edge. My surdo buddy played the wrong funk and I followed him. I made about 5 errors in total. Enjoyed it, but I should have done more prep. Left about 03:00-ish. My burnt left foot was tender. Blister has got bigger. It's now 05:15. Big day tomorrow: our street set but we're no longer parading.

Saturday 22 February: Day 13
Woke late. Went to Lapa about 15:00 for the final gig. Bit of waiting around. Had a snooze on the gym mats at the Fundicão Progresso. Did the sound check and then played a gig by the arches in Lapa. It was a bit of an anti-climax. We didn't play great and J P wasn't up like at Circo Voador and Encontro do Blocos. I couldn't feed off his energy. Crowd was a bit disappointingly small. Took drums back then had afterparty. I was tired but still had a decent time when talking to people. Went on to Bar do Italiano. Stayed up all night and went to Copacabana with Emma for the sunrise. She took a bit of persuading, but we're both glad we did it. It was beautiful. The setting was stunning. Got hassled by three young guys who wanted money. Emma gave them a Rizzler and they eventually went away. They had us both worried. I thought we were getting a gentle mugging. Didn't spoil it too much. Went for a swim after the sunrise. Lovely way to end the holiday. Left about 07:00. Had a shower at the hotel and I'm now lying on my bed at 08:19. May have a quick nap before packing.

Sunday 23 February: Day 14
Slept a couple of hours until after 10:00. Had breakfast and packed until just after midday. Checked out of the Mercure, stored bags and went to Emma and Betchy's room. Had a snooze, still tired after the sunrise. Booked Ocado delivery. Went out for dinner at the kilo place. Had a small leaving drinks party in the reception, thrown by Aldo, who has taken a liking to us. Got the bus to the airport. Moved up to sit beside Emma when she woke after a snooze and enjoyed the view out the window together. Flew home. Sat by myself by the window next to an elderly couple. Watched Enough Said, slept, got up for the toilet and a stretch, then watched Sunshine on Leith.

Monday 24 February: Travel day
On arrival at Heathrow, gave everyone a hug goodbye at baggage reclaim. Emma forgot her suitcase and had to come back through security to get it. I had noticed - first assuming she was at the toilet - and waited for her. Had a coffee with her. Dave Wells and Maggie joined us later. So I'm back from Brazil, writing this on the bus back to Oxford. Tired, a bit emotional, but full of happy memories and experiences.

Back home I unpacked everything and started four loads of washing. My Ocado delivery (ordered from an apartment bed in Rio) arrived after 18:00. Discovered that my car's wing mirror on the driver's side is missing. No sign of it being smashed. Appears to have been stolen or vandalized. Went to bed before midnight.

Tuesday 25 February
Worked from home so I could get my car's wing mirror fixed. Feeling the post-holiday blues pretty badly. I feel crushed. I miss the joy and happiness of Rio, the people (both local and in the band), the sunshine, warmth, swimming, music, camaraderie. Finding it hard to adjust to life back down here. No enthusiasm for work today. Fell asleep in my chair after dinner cuddling Jojo, even though I felt like going to bed then, the cats probably prevented me. Slept for at least 2.5 hours in the chair! In bed now at 00:11. Have been writing since before midnight. Might end this diary here. All washing done and hanging up to dry. Sol Samba rehearsal tomorrow. Hard come-down. Thankful for a holiday of joy and wonder and love of all kinds.

Thursday 23 January 2014